Important Updates on the City Tech Science Fiction Collection’s Library Exhibit and Amazing Stories Symposium

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Creating the library exhibit. Photo by Sean Scanlan.

This semester, I have been doing a lot of work with the City Tech Science Fiction Collection that culminated with a City Tech Library window exhibit (see photo above) and the well-attended symposium on Amazing Stories: Inspiration, Learning, and Adventure in Science Fiction.

The library exhibit was a fun project to undertake. I had not installed something like this before, so I had to do a lot of planning and sought support from the School of Arts and Sciences for access to a wide-format printer. Despite the best planning, it still took over four hours to completely dress the window display by myself (with the help of masonry line that I picked up at Lowes). I describe how I created the library exhibit using materials in the City Tech Science Fiction Collection on the Science Fiction at City Tech OpenLab site here.

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Presenting at the symposium. Photo by Sean Scanlan.

The symposium was a much larger undertaking, but not one that I lacked experience in. Previously, I organized the academic track of a symposium at Georgia Tech as an undergraduate student, and later, I handled scheduling for the 2009 SFRA Conference in Atlanta, GA (with approximately 100 presenters). I served as the chair of the Symposium on Amazing Stories organizing committee. My colleagues Mary Nilles provided a lot of useful brainstorming early in the process, and Aaron Barlow gave me good advice. Jill Belli handled the important student session planning, which turned out to be the most well-attended panel during the symposium. I organized twelve presentations across three serial sessions, opened the symposium, presented a paper, read a paper for an absent presenter who was ill, presented on the acquisition of the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, and gave a tour of the collection with Keith Muchowski. Besides having this great opportunity to learn from my colleagues and scholars from Columbia, CUNY, York, and Yale, I was thrilled that so many students came to each session, asked questions, and joined the conversation. Also, I learned a lot from the students during the student roundtable during the penultimate panel. The Symposium on Amazing Stories program can be found here, and the symposium wrap-up with photos can be read here.

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Answering questions in the archives. Photo by Sean Scanlan.

Engagement, Learning and Inspiration in SF: Use Cases for the City Tech Science Fiction Collection

I delivered this presentation at the James Madison University Pulp Studies Symposium on October 7, 2016. The video above shows my presentation’s images, and the script of my talk is included below.

The paper is about introducing new audiences to old ideas for the benefit of two different City Tech audiences: 1) frame the historical publication context of science fiction short stories for students, and 2) illuminate the deep history of technological ideas for faculty fellows in the NEH-funded “Cultural History of Digital Technology” project.

[UPDATE: The symposium was a great success! Thank you to everyone who had questions and comments during our session. I posted photos taken by colleague Caroline Hellman over at the Science Fiction at City Tech website.]

 

Engagement, Learning and Inspiration in SF: Use Cases for the City Tech Science Fiction Collection

Jason W. Ellis

 

In the first issue of Amazing Stories dated April 1926, Hugo Gernsback writes:

By ‘scientifiction’ I mean the Jules Verne, H. G. Wells and Edgar Allan Poe type of story—a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision … Not only do these amazing tales make tremendously interesting reading—they are always instructive. (Gernsback 3)

According to Gernsback, the literary genre that would become known as science fiction combines romance, scientific fact, and prophetic vision. The romance engages the reader in an interesting story. The facts instruct the reader in science and technology. The prophetic vision extrapolates from what is known into the not-yet-known and simultaneously inspires readers to realize that vision. I believe that Gernsback’s vision of SF is fundamental to arguments for SF collections at colleges with a pedagogical and community-serving commission like City Tech. Our college occupies several buildings in downtown Brooklyn and serves the educational needs of over 17,000 students. Historically a trade and vocational school, it has over time and by design developed into a senior college of the City University of New York (CUNY) system. Nevertheless, the students it serves and the fields it attempts to prepare them for are primarily focused on STEM career paths. While not all stakeholders recognize the importance that the humanities have to STEM graduates’ success and overall outlook, the administration’s support of the City Tech Science Fiction Collection signals at least one way in which the humanities—in this case via SF—is seen as supportive to the otherwise STEM-focused educational work of the college. In effect, SF and the collection serves as a source for engagement, learning, and inspiration for students who have much to gain from it as a literary genre that reveals the inextricable linkages between STEM and the humanities. While I cannot within the scope of this presentation explore all of these functions of SF, I will restrict myself to discussing how I have used the collection to support my teaching and pedagogical work at City Tech.

 

Teaching Science Fiction from a Historical Perspective

For students, my SF syllabus takes a historical approach to the genre. Following Brian Aldiss, I point to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the genre’s beginning, because its plot pivots upon on an extrapolation of science and technology. Following this novel, I have students read a chronological progression of short stories that correspond with the movements in the genre: proto-science fiction and SF’s influences, H.G. Wells and his scientific romances, Jules Verne and his Voyages extraordinaires, Hugo Gernsback’s scientifiction and the pulps, John W. Campbell, Jr. and the Golden Age, the New Wave, Feminist SF, Cyberpunk, and contemporary SF. Looking at my current syllabus, which draws on readings from the Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction and a few stories in PDF form that are not in the anthology, over half appear for the first time in magazines held in the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, including: Isaac Asimov’s “Reason,” Astounding Science Fiction, April 1941; Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations,” Astounding Science Fiction August 1954; Robert Heinlein’s “All You Zombies—,“ The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, March 1959; Harlan Ellison’s “Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman,” Galaxy Magazine, December 1965; Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction April 1966; James Tiptree, Jr’s “The Women Men Don’t See,” The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction December 1973; William Gibson’s “Burning Chrome,” Omni July 1982; and Octavia Butler’s “Speech Sounds,” Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine Mid-December 1983. In addition to discussing each story in its historical context and its addressing Gernsback’s tripartite definition (along with other definitions, too), I show students photos of the magazines and their contents. I relate how these magazines were a big deal that introduced readers to engaging stories, new science and technology, and inspirational ideas via the haptic and tactile experience of reading printed magazines. Furthermore, the contents of a given magazine add an anthropological context to the magazines via editorials, letters, fandom, and advertising. Finally, the magazines help situate the readings for students, because they empower me to point at the library and take the readings out of the abstract realm of anthologization.

 

NEH-sponsored “Cultural History of Digital Technology” Project

While my students’ experience of SF is enriched by the historical materiality of our readings, City Tech’s faculty, who are engaged in pedagogical planning that bridges STEM and the humanities, share some of the same needs as my students. I have learned that my STEM-focused colleagues are experts in their fields, but many do not conceptualize SF on one level as a literary genre that addresses Gernsback’s tripartite definition: romance, scientific facts, and prophetic vision, or on another level as a literary form built on interdisciplinary STEM methodologies (i.e., building assemblages of ideas and constructing extrapolations) and focused on the effects of science and technology on humanity and vice versa (e.g., Asimov’s concept of “social science fiction” or Philip K. Dick’s epistemological and ontological adventures). Professor Anne Leonhardt of Architectural Technology and director of the NEH-funded project titled, “The Cultural History of Digital Technology: Postulating a Humanities Approach to STEM,” asked me to join and contribute my humanities-focused perspective. The project’s goal is to create six interdisciplinary pedagogical modules—on maps, fractals, robotics and sociality, geotagging, topology, and finally, robotics and the workplace. We do this by inviting speakers, holding reading groups, and participating in pedagogical workshops. The student-facing modules will integrate readings, classroom lecture and demonstration, and a hands-on activity. Initially, I helped with finding readings for two modules—fractals and topology, but as I describe below, I have leveraged the City Tech Science Fiction Collection’s magazine holdings and demonstrated that humanities folks can do more than find interesting readings. Also, I will use Gernsback’s definition as a measure of each considered story’s usefulness to the module’s goals.

 

3D Printing

The first module that I contributed readings to is called “Fractals: Patterning, Fabrication, and the Materiality of Thinking.” Its purpose is to bridge students’ understanding of mathematics to the natural world by using fractal geometry—the notion that Benoit Mandelbrot introduced as the process and principle of order and structure underlying the physical world. We teach students the underlying principles of fractal geometry, help them create a workflow using open-source tools to generate a 3D printable STL, or STereoLithography model, and finally, have them print their model using one of City Tech’s powder or plastic 3D printers.

Initially, I did not consider the City Tech Science Fiction Collection’s holdings, because everything was sitting in 160 boxes stacked floor to ceiling in my office and my former colleague, Alan Lovegreen’s office. Rudy Rucker’s “As Above, So Below” (1989), a story not widely anthologized but available on the author’s website, first came to mind, because I knew that both sides of his professional work touched on this topic. Rucker, a cyberpunk SF writer and mathematician, had written this story after his own attempts at discovering what is now called a “Mandelbulb,” or a three-dimensional plot of the Mandelbrot set, the recognizable image based on a simple iterative function explored in the work of Benoit Mandelbrot. In Rucker’s story, a mathematican hacks together a program that creates a three-dimensional Mandelbrot set that breaks out of his computer screen and takes him on a trippy voyage away from life and into a crabmeat can in his pantry where he can code and enjoy energy drinks for the rest of his life—as long as no one get hungry for canned crab. While it is an interesting story and Rucker’s work on the Mandelbulb is noted in the module, his story is more romantic and possibly prophetic, but less instructive.

Shortly thereafter, Alan and I finished moving and shelving the City Tech SF Collection, and I began searching for a better story in the collection’s magazines—a story that fulfills the Gernsbackian requirements and connects to both of the module’s topics: fractals and 3D printing. One such contender was Robert Heinlein’s “Waldo,” which tended to capture the materiality-emphasis of the module better than Rucker’s much later story. Published in August 1942 in Astounding Science Fiction as by Heinlein’s pseudonym Anson MacDonald, “Waldo” features on the cover with art by Hubert Rogers and story illustration by Paul Orban. The story is where the term for a remote manipulator system is coined—a waldo. However, the story is about a man named Waldo Jones who invents remote manipulators to enable his weakened body to act on the world. With his invention, he sets out to make smaller ones and smaller ones until they were capable of manipulating microscopic neural tissue and investigate the cause of his physical handicap. The idea then is that waldoes could be used to build up matter in the same way they were used to build smaller versions of themselves. Heinlein’s story fulfills Gernsback’s requirements—romance (intrigue and revenge), scientific fact (cybernetics), and prophetic vision (what possibilities might waldoes enable), but it does not fulfill both module topics as strongly.

Eventually, I found the story that is credited as the first SF describing 3D printing in detail: Eric Frank Russell’s “Hobbyist,” in the September 1947 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Unlike “Waldo,” “Hobbyist” is not as widely anthologized, so having access to it in its original magazine was a bonus. If you are familiar with the contemporary video game, No Man’s Sky, then you have an idea about what “Hobbyist” is generally about. Astronaut Steve Ander and his companion parrot Laura crash land on a distant world and are in need of nickel-thorium alloy for fuel, which will hopefully get them a little closer to home. While scavenging around the crash site, Ander notices unsettling patterns of repetition in the world around him and discovers a structure that houses what amounts to a collection of life forms created in a 3D printer of sorts and maintained by an omnipotent being. The narrator describes it thus:

It was done by electroponics, atom fed to atom like brick after brick to build a house. It wasn’t synthesis because that’s only assembly, and this was assembly plus growth in response to unknown laws. In each of these machines, he knew, was some key or code or cipher, some weird master-control of unimaginable complexity, determining the patterns each was building—and the patterns were infinitely variable. (Russell 56)

“Hobbyist” satisfied the Gernsbackian requirements—romance (escape the planet), scientific fact (small scale engineering, iterative and fractal growth), and prophetic vision (might this technology make us gods?) and united both module topics. Capturing “Hobbyist” with my iPhone and Scanner Pro app, I shared the story with the other NEH Fellows— the story’s text and in-story illustrations by Edd Cartier and cover art by Alejandro de Cañedo. During meetings, I related the history of the magazine and how that adds to the importance of the story as a nodal point of STEM ideas expressed through SF long before 3D printing was first innovated in the 1980s, and even before it was described in theoretical terms by Richard Feynman in his well-known December 1959 American Physical Society presentation, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.”

 

Topology

The second module that I contributed to is called “Topology: Behind Escher’s Wizardry, A Look at the Development of Modeling and Fabrication.” Unlike the earlier fractal module, the topology module would involve programming to create each student’s 3D printed model. In addition to my role as the humanist on the team, I made this a personal challenge to relearn Wolfram Mathematica, a symbolic computation program that supports a relatively easy-to-use programming language, because I wanted to demonstrate how its could satisfy all aspects of teaching, coding, and modeling. I began by creating a Mathematica workbook that demonstrated topology concepts, such as points, lines, polygons, and dimensionality, and easy-to-follow programming tutorials of topological surfaces. Additionally, I showed how Mathematica exported 3D printable STL files of the topological models students would create.

Initially, we considered Edwin Abbott’s Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884), but Professor Satyanand Singh, a colleague in the Mathematics department, suggested that we show a video based on Abbott’s story instead. This created an opportunity.

While performing serious play with Mathematica, I recalled Robert Heinlein’s “—And He Built a Crooked House” from the February 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Featuring cover art by Hubert Rogers and story illustrations by Charles Schneeman, the story is about an ambitious architect who designs a house in the shape of an unfolded tesseract, or a four-dimensional cube. Unfolded means to create a geometric net or the interconnected, component elements of the object. For example, a three-dimensional cube unfolds into a net composed of two-dimensional squares arranged in eleven different configurations. On the other hand, a tesseract, which is four-dimensional, unfolds into a net of connected three-dimensional cubes with 168 possible configurations! The architect’s innovative design is such an arrangement of three-dimensional cubes, which in this case, resembles the Cross of St. Peter. Unfortunately, having been built in California, there is an earthquake and the house collapses into itself forming a nondescript house-like cube. The incredulous architect and his nonplussed clients enter the domicile to investigate and become trapped within the structure’s weird, higher-dimensional geometry. It is an improbable story, but it captures the strangeness of higher dimensions and introduces topics for discussion. “—And He Built a Crooked House” fulfills Gernsback’s definition—romance (escape the counter-intuitive house-turned-maze), scientific fact (higher dimensionality), and prophetic vision (let’s use math to build innovative buildings), and it tangentially fulfills the module’s focus on topology.

The NEH project is on going, so there are opportunities to locate other stories and materials in the SF magazines held in the City Tech Science Fiction Collection. In my SF class, I hope to bring my students to the archives for special projects pre-arranged with the librarians. Professor Jill Belli is doing this now, and some of her students’ work will be features in a special session of the upcoming Symposium on Amazing Stories: Inspiration, Learning, and Adventure in Science Fiction on November 29 at City Tech, which I hope that you all will consider presenting or attending. Thank you for listening.

Works Cited

Gernsback, Hugo. “A New Sort of Magazine.” Amazing Stories April 1926: 3.

Heinlein, Robert. “—And He Built a Crooked House. Astounding Science Fiction, February 1941, 68-83.

Russell, Eric Frank. “Hobbyist.” Astounding Science Fiction, September 1947. 33-61

 

 

2015 Science Fiction Research Association Conference Wrap-Up

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Stony Brook University, Charles Wang Center

The Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA) held its forty-sixth annual conference on June 25-28, 2015 at Stony Brook University in the Charles B. Wang Center. Our theme this year was, “The SF We Don’t (Usually) See: Suppressed Histories, Liminal Voices, Emerging Media.”

As I detailed in a previous blog post, I presented on the SF that we don’t see (any more) on the Apple Macintosh computing platform and Voyager’s Expanded Books of the early-1990s.

Other voices that stood out in my conference-going experience included keynotes by Vandana Singh on Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Tho Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” and climate change, and M. Asli Dukan on “the white fantastic imagination” and “the invisible universe.” Jessica FitzPatrick and Steven Mollmann presented on postcolonial superheroes and SF. Lisa Yaszek, Isiah Lavender III, and Gerry Canavan gave excellent presentations on Afrofuturism. Keren Omry, Alan Lovegreen (my colleague from City Tech), and Hugh Charles O’Connell  questioned the relationship of capitalism and the future. Alexis Lothian (who tweeted much of the conference with me and others with the #sfra2015 hashtag) gave us a compelling view into “Queer World Building, Digital Media, and Speculative Critical Fandom.”Donald “Mack” Hassler chaired a session on gender with compelling papers by Marleen S. Barr and Rosalyn W. Berne.

Doug Davis gave what I thought was the best presentation of the conference on “The SF We (Usually Don’t Talk About but) Always See, or Can We Use Science Fiction Genre Theory to Read Canonical Literary Texts?: Reading Flannery O’Connor’s “The Displaced Person.” Doug’s co-panelist Brad Reina presented a different tact on approaching eBooks in his paper: “Electronic Literature in The Diamond Age: Neal Stephenson and the Present and Future of eBooks.” I learned a lot (and took a lot of pictures of slides/names) in the China SF session on Saturday afternoon featuring interesting papers by Hua Li, Cara Healy, Quiong Yang, and Nathaniel Isaacson.

The SFRA Awards Banquet on Saturday night ended what I consider to be a very successful conference. While some of us encountered challenges to reaching Stony Brook on Long Island (the Long Island Rail Road, Newark/JFK/La Guardia Airports, ferries, car rentals, traffic problems), I think that sharing of ideas and the valuable conversations made the difficulties recede far into the background. The warmth of the camaraderie and the welcoming inclusivity at SFRA overcomes any hurdle. Additionally, Stony Brook–a sprawling campus surrounded by trees and populated by bunny rabbits–has a surprisingly science fictional side in some of its buildings’ architectures, including the Charles Wang Center (pictured above) and the Stony Brook University Hospital (pictured below).

After the conference was over, I caught a ride back to Brooklyn with Mack and Sue Hassler and Adam Frisch. We had lunch together after Y joined us at Wilma Jean’s Restaurant. We all squeezed back into the rental car, dropped Adam off at the airport to fly back to Sioux City, and then, Mack, Sue, Y, and I drove to Coney Island to enjoy walking along the boardwalk and sharing each other’s company.

Next year, we will cross the Atlantic Ocean for the forty-seventh conference and meet to discuss “Systems and Knowledge.” Forming a joint event with the Current Research in Speculative Fictions at the University of Liverpool, we will meet on June 27-30, 2016 in Liverpool, England. For me, it will be like going home, and I can’t wait!

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Stony Brook University Hospital

Recovered Writing: SFRA 2010 Paper, “James Cameron’s Avatar and the Machine in the Garden: Reading Movie Narratives and Practices of Production,” June 26, 2010

This is the thirty-fifth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

This example of Recovered Writing is an essay that I wrote for the 2010 Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA) Conference in Arizona. I delivered the paper on June 26, 2010 on a panel moderated by my dissertation advisor Donald “Mack” Hassler and with my wife Yufang Lin (who presented a paper evaluating Avatar in terms of postcolonial theory). I wrote about our experience at the Arizona conference here.

This paper is one that I had hoped to return to and publish on, but I can’t figure when I could do it at this point. So, I offer it to you to read and think about.

James Cameron’s Avatar and the Machine in the Garden: Reading Movie Narratives and Practices of Production

Jason W. Ellis

In an earlier essay, I argued that Cold War autonomous technologies and fictional robots replace humanity in the so-called American garden, the idyllic pastoral imaginative space that continues to carry a hold over the American imagination according to the respective work of Leo Marx and Sharona Ben-Tov. At that time, I could not find a work or example counter to the paradox presented by Marx and Ben-Tov, which is that in choosing to embrace technology and industrialization over agrarianism at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we, meaning Americans, have continued to move further away from that ideal while retaining a trace of affection for it. Furthermore, Ben-Tov demonstrates that we continually try to return to the garden through technological means, which paradoxically keeps us away from the garden. For Marx and Ben-Tov the emphasis is placed on the narrative itself–the stories about the intrusion of the machine into the garden. I, on the other hand, believe that it is equally important, to consider the confluence of story and the production of that story, and the way those two things relate to the emblematic machine in the garden. I argue that Avatar, on the level of narrative, re-inscribes and challenges the concept of the machine in the garden. The humans and their machines invade Pandora’s idyllic garden as part of an imperialistic expansion of capitalistic rapaciousness. The tranquility of the pastoral scene is disturbed and broken by the technological ends of industrialization. Concurrent with this narrative, Cameron presents an alternative in which Pandora complicates what Marx calls the “pastoral ideal,” which he locates “in a middle ground somewhere ‘between,’ yet in a transcendent relation to, the opposing forces of civilization and nature” (23). Pandora is those things, an in-between space, but it is also, as I will show, a fusion of the pastoral and the technological into a third way, a techno-ecological possibility for hope in a sustainable world–something we are far from achieving on Earth. Despite these possibilities, I will conclude by arguing that the practices of making this film, the techno-scientific methods and practices of contemporary science fiction filmmaking undermines, in part, Cameron’s best intentions to run counter to internalized narrative constraints.

To begin, Leo Marx writes that “The pastoral ideal has been used to define the meaning of America ever since the age of discovery, and its has not yet lost its hold upon the native imagination” (3). This is true still today and it is re-established in Avatar. Cameron himself says in an interview that the film has “a garden theme with teeth and claws” (“Avatar: Making a Scene”). Jake Sully, a warrior from the human “Jarhead clan” or Marines, guides the audience through the film’s fictional world with the aid of his sense of wonder fueled by his bodily escape from the confines of a wheelchaired existence. Through Jake’s exploration in his remotely controlled, Na’vi-human spliced avatar, his remote controlled organic embodiment, we discover that Pandora is a lush environment, and its flora and fauna share many similarities to life on planet Earth while having significant “cognitively estranging” differences such as extra appendages, exotic colors, bioluminescence, etc. Furthermore, the life on Pandora is unified through its rhizomic network of plant and animal life that either connects into what the Na’vi call their goddess, Eywa (call this an established or emergent deity as you will), a world totalizing essence that enables what I call a dynamic homeostasis. Pandora, prior to humanity’s arrival, seems to be idyllic and senrene, life going about doing what it does, the Na’vi living and dying, creating stories and myths, living their lives through their own social reality as they saw best while acknowledging the significance of the greater world: the planet itself, of which they are each contributors, collaborators, and codependents. They live off the land, and the land sustains itself on the practices shared by the Na’vi and apparently all life on Pandora.

Then, the humans arrive on Pandora and the story re-establishes the American myth of remembering the idyllic garden while encroaching on that garden with the technological artifacts of industrialization. Delivered by interplanetary starships, the humans set to work strip mining Pandora of what ultimately becomes the unobtainable precious element, named with slight tongue in cheek, Unobtainium. The humans demarcate their space from the surrounding idyllic garden of Pandora, only going out to take the minerals so desperately sought to assuage the troubled economy back on Earth while occasionally attempting to negotiate with the native Na’vi inhabitants for the so-called “rights” to mine the Unobtainium beneath Hometree, the megalithic old-growth tree that is home to the Omaticaya clan. The corporate-led humans and their military goons go out in heavy machinery that literally rips, burns, and blows-up the Pandoran jungle and sacred sites on their way to Hometree. These machines rupture the natural world orchestrated by the goddess Eywa. This is not to say that the natural environment is not valued in some way. The corporation is concerned about its image back on Earth. The corporate fear is that by killing human-like lifeforms will make the company look bad, which will, in turn, effect the bottom line and the stock price. Corporate conscience is thus dependent on perception back home rather than any moral or ethical compass. The Unobtainium must be obtained at almost any cost.

Jake Sully, to be sure, is an interesting hybrid character in the film. He is our guide to this eruption of human machines in the Pandoran garden. He learns the circuits of the human conquest while discovering the circuits of life on Pandora. Jake’s hybrid or cyborg existence bridges the human and Na’vi divide. However, he is, with his avatar, another technological machine entering the garden. As a Harawayan cyborg, he does represent the possibility of emancipation of historical modes of domination through technology, but it is also the case that his avatar is as much a symptom as a cure to the machine intrusion into the garden.

Regardless of Jake’s problematic status as imperialist and appropriator of the Na’vi’s myths, he also represents the audience’s admission to an alternative possibility, not in opposition, but in resolution of the nature-technological divide. I contend that Jake and Pandora itself are hybrids that achieve this resolution. His avatar brings him closer to the nature of Pandora, but it is initially only through the apparatus of the avatar remote control technology that he can step away from humanity into the interconnected real and social worlds of the Na’vi. Human technology allows him to see the possibility of love and connection on the other side of the divide, but it is the Pandoran technology-like organicism, that allows Jake to transcend his human body and its technological assemblages to cross the divide in the final scene to become fully Jake of the Omaticaya people. The queue, which the Na’vi and seemingly all other animal life on Pandora appear to have, is a braid of neural tissue that facilitates a link between minds, to the goddess, and to the planet. It is an organic version of the jack from The Matrix. Besides living as one with the planet, the queue and the rhizomic network of plant life on Pandora, enables a kind of sharing–of emotions, memories, and relationships–that leads to cooperation, not domination

Cameron’s Pandoran fusion of the natural world and the network into an organic vision of sustainability and cooperation between life and planet challenges the pastoral ideal described by Marx. It taps into the artificial division of objects and subjects in modernity described by Latour. It is a different way of thinking about hybrids and cyborgs. Everything about Pandora concerns the proliferating hybrids of Latour. Under the surface of the first human-centric narrative, which divides the world artificially into objects and subjects, the Pandora narrative reveals how these things are blurred. The organic network brings together the Na’vi with the rest of the life on their planet. The social intermixes with the natural, and vice versa. And, all of this is accomplished through the network, or what the Na’vi consider Eywa.  Eywa is a planetwide cyborg and a system of social relationships in which the social extends beyond the Na’vi. Haraway insists “that social relationships include nonhumans as well as humans as socially . . . active partners. All that is unhuman is not un-kind, outside kinship, outside the orders of signification, excluded from trading in signs and wonders” (8). Eywa and the life of Pandora are inextricably intertwined in an unimaginably complex social relationship, and they “trade in signs and wonder” on a daily basis, but most visually evident in the rearguard response by Pandora at the film’s conclusion. It is, from the human perspective, the hybrid and socially interconnected features of Pandora that represent a third way, a different and revitalizing possibility for life beyond industrialized exploitation of the land and people.

For these reasons, Avatar is a science fiction film that challenges the theories of Marx and Ben-Tov. The narrative of the Na’vi and their planet Pandora demonstrates a hybrid possibility for nature and the social. However we may want to conjecture how Pandora came to be the way it is, the bottom line is that it exhibits the characteristics of the things that have in the past been purified as object or subject. Furthermore, Ben-Tov, building her own theory of the artificial paradise, says, “Unlike the texts that Marx surveys . . . science fiction does not try to temper hopefulness with history” (9). Avatar does revert to the sense of hopefulness that Marx describes in relation to the desire for the mythical idyllic garden and American pastoralism. But, as I said above, the film provides an alternative to Marx’s machine in the garden narrative. Yes, it is tempered with hope, but it is hope in new way that fuses the pastoral with technology and the social with nature. Avatar, as a result of its hybrid embedded narrative, is a counter example to what Ben-Tov characterizes as science fiction’s attempt “to create immunity from history,” which “reveals a curious dynamic: the greater our yearning for a return to the garden, the more we invest in technology as the purveyor of the unconstrained existence that we associate with the garden. Science fiction’s national mode of thinking boils down to a paradox: the American imagination seeks to replace nature with a technological, man-made world in order to return to the garden of American nature” (9). The Na’vi/Pandora-centric narrative challenges this mode of thinking. Pandora represents a natural world that also enjoys and makes use of abilities that we would otherwise characterize as technological in nature. Homeostasis, networks, and dynamic load balancing are all technical concepts on Earth, but they are developed and put to use in the natural world of the imaginative Pandora. Avatar draws back from what Ben-Tov sees as the replacement of nature with technology. Instead, it is the hybridization of these two artificially separate things. Or, is it?

The curious thing about Avatar is how immersive the experience can be. I saw it three times: once on IMAX 3D and twice on RealD digital projection. Each time that I watched the film, I found myself falling into the experience and its world, but I could not avoid thinking about how Avatar’s seemingly natural environment was made. Cameron took green screen and computer generated imagery (CGI) to all new levels. He effectively schooled George Lucas about how to populate an entirely artificial environment with believable, human-like alien characters. Cameron himself said in an interview, “it was exciting when we rounded that corner and we knew we had true human emotion captured and performed by nonhuman characters” (“Avatar: Making a Scene”). The keyword here is captured, and he goes on to use the word preserve. Using state-of-the-art computer and film technology, much of which he and his subsidiary companies produced, Cameron captures, preserves, and transforms a performance into something radically new. He takes the behaviors, actions, facial expressions, and voices of real people, acting in what is called a “spatial volume,” or a space demarcated as corresponding with some place on Pandora but existing in our world, and stores, manipulates, and creates new imagery and actions that look real but not of this world. A specific example would be the development of the banshee flight scenes. Within the spatial volume, he moves toy-sized banshees through their flight paths, the actors perform on gimbals their flights synced to the flight paths, cameras record the movements and facial expressions of the actors for computer translation, and then finally, Cameron walks through the spatial volume alone with a virtual camera, an Apple iPad sized device that acts as a window into the virtual Pandora environment all around him, to record the scenes he wants for the film. These methods, all reliant on technology, re-inscribe the machine in the garden, or film tech into virtual Pandora. If the Pandora-centric narrative is the garden, despite its elegant resolution of the nature/social and pastoral/machine dialectics, then the way in which Pandora is developed within the memory banks of computers and rendering farms is the re-introduction of the machine into the idyllic pastoral environment. Ben-Tov may not be entirely correct about the way in which science fiction narratives, the subject of her work, represent our inability to restore the pastoral through technology, but she is definitely correct when we step back and consider the way in which an inventive pastoral science fiction narrative is constructed with technology for mass consumption. What this means is that we also need to consider the means of production of science fiction in various media, along with their stories, because the practices and methods of creating science fiction are themselves becoming more science fictional. The meta-narrative of making science fiction is a largely neglected aspect of meaning making that I believe will attract more critical attention as virtuality becomes more established in film production. It may one day be all that we have left when actors perform, in effect, under erasure, and the filmic simulations proliferate.

 

Works Cited

Avatar: Making a Scene.” Fox Movie Channel. Hulu. Web. 21 April 2010. Online Video.

Ben-Tov, Sharona. The Artificial Paradise: Science Fiction and American Reality. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. Print.

Cameron, James, writer and dir. Avatar. 20th Century Fox, 2009. Film.

Haraway, Donna J. Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.
FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™: Feminism and Technoscience
. New York: Routledge, 1997. Print.

Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden; Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. New York: Oxford UP, 1964. Print.

 

Recovered Writing: Handwritten Notes from 1st International Philip K. Dick Conference Dortmund, Nov 15-18, 2012

Conference group photo from PKD Dortmund Conference.
Conference group photo from PKD Dortmund Conference.

This is the thirty-first post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

In this Recovered Writing post, I am bringing my analog writing into the digital realm of cyberspace by scanning the pages of my notebook from the First International Philip K. Dick Conference, Dortmund into a PDF. Instead of copy-and-pasting my writing as I have done on my previous Recovered Writing posts, this one has be downloaded as a PDF below.

In addition to my record of all of the sessions and keynote speeches, you can observe my degrading handwriting (I’m so far removed from my days as a draftsman-in-training or as a high school student receiving commendations for his penmanship), trouble with spelling jargon and names, and rough sketches of Laurence Rickels’ theatrically performative keynote presentation.

I was so busy during the last bit of 2012 and all of 2013 that I never returned to collect my thoughts from the Dortmund conference in a blog post. This wasn’t because I thought it wasn’t important. In fact, it was tremendously important and enlightening to me. In my 2012 retrospective post, I wrote, “November 15-18: I attended the first international Philip K. Dick conference at UT-Dortmund in Dortmund, Germany. I delivered a heavily revised version of my SFRA 2012 paper, “Philip K. Dick as Pioneer of the Brain Revolution.” The conference was a fantastic experience. I promise to write more about this in a separate post. In the meantime, you can see my pictures from Germany here.” Unfortunately, the demands of teaching, research, and job hunting took precedence over my desire to “write more about [the conference] in a separate post.” It will have to suffice for now to post these notes for any and all who have the time and ability to decipher my scribblings. If you are so inclined, good luck!

You may download my notes from the First International Philip K. Dick Conference, Dortmund here: ellis-jason-pkd-dortmund-notes.pdf.

Curating a Conference Backchannel with Storify: 2013 SFRA/Eaton Conference in Riverside, CA

SFRA-logoWhile I was unable to attend this year’s Science Fiction Research Association Conference, held in conjunction with the biannual Eaton Conference this year, in Riverside, California, I was able to follow along with the goings-on thanks to Facebook and Twitter. As you might know, I am a big fan of Storify as a digital curation tool, so I thought it would make it easier for me to catch up and create an archive of the tweets made during the conference with the hashtags #sfra or #SFRAton (thanks to Glyn Morgan for that one). Unfortunately, I found it too time consuming to try to incorporate #eaton posts, because it is a widely used hashtag by different communities. A word of advice to all future conference organizers: plan ahead by researching available hashtags by seeing what’s unique and unused in the Twitterverse (at least as long as Twitter is a viable backchannel tool–otherwise, go with what works best!).

If you have never used Storify before, you should check it out. Simply go to storify.com and either create a new account or login using your Facebook or Twitter account. Choose to “Create a new story,” and then search among the different social media and web options in the right column. In this case, I searched for #sfra and #sfraton under Twitter. I then loaded all of the publicly available tweets and choose to add them all to my Storify Story (in the left column). Finally, I reordered the tweets chronologically and added a title and description before choosing to publish the Storify Story. What I did is very basic. Storify’s power comes from the ability to intermix/remix tweets with links, photos, and your comments added within Storify. It would be great if other SFRA members who attended the conference to create their Storify Story that includes more comments or photos from the various events.

Follow the link below for my Storify curation of the conference and many thanks to all of the SFRA members who diligently reported on the awesomeness of this year’s conference!

[View the story “2013 Joint SFRA/Eaton Conference in Riverside, CA” on Storify]

Assessing Multimodality: Navigating the Digital Turn Tweet Round Up on Storify and a Picture of Me and My Pedagogy Poster

My Pedagogy Poster on "Writing the Brain" at Assessing Multimodality Symposium.
My Pedagogy Poster on “Writing the Brain” at Assessing Multimodality Symposium.

Today, the Georgia Tech Writing and Communication Program and Bedford St. Martins hosted a symposium on Assessing Multimodality: Navigating the Digital Turn. I co-presented a workshop with Mirja Lobnik on Multimodality and Perception and I presented a poster during one of the day’s sessions. Many of us were tweeting our experiences at the symposium today, too. Click through the Storify embed below to virtually experience the symposium 140 characters at a time.

[View the story “Assessing Multimodality: Navigating the Digital Turn Symposium” on Storify]